According to Sitsongpeenong Gym owner Tim Dharmajiva, his fighter Thongchai would be “unstoppable if he had even half the motivation that [his team mate] Sittichai does”. Instead, the new GLORY welterweight’s focus is elsewhere: he is obsessed with gambling on chicken-fights, a popular pastime in working-class Thailand. Dharmajiva is hoping the Thai army can straighten him out.
Thongchai (134-32 in Muay Thai) is huge by the standards of the average Thai, standing 5’10” (1.78m) and walking around at as much as 200lbs (90kgs) when he is out of training. At 20 years old he has yet to finish growing but he is already much bigger than when he won a Lumpini Stadium title as a teenager, one of the sport’s top honors.
Having had his first fight at the age of 11, Thongchai is already a veteran: he’s spent nearly half his life fighting and more than half his life training. Dharmajiva wonders if that early start – and his early success – lie behind the issues he sometimes has getting Thongchai motivated. And not only motivated, but stopping him running away from the camp at night to go and gamble on his beloved chicken fights.
For a manager to speak so bluntly about his fighter is unusual, especially when that fighter is newly-signed to the sport’s premier league. But, Dharmajiva is a straight talker. He is frustrated by Thongchai and his work ethic – or lack thereof – but among the frustration there may be a grudging amusement at his charge’s untamable nature.
“He’s lazy!” scoffs Dharmajiva over a crackly phone line as he sits in one of Bangkok’s interminable traffic jams. “Well, maybe there’s been a bit of burnout from fighting from so young, maybe he just got sick of training.
“But he has a girlfriend whose family has quite a bit of money and they’ve been letting him get away with bumming around the house doing nothing. But now they are fed up with that and so he has to get his arse in gear and go out and earn some money to make a living.”
Fortunately for Thongchai, his teammate Sittichai’s success in GLORY – he is the new lightweight champion – has the promotion looking fondly on talent from the Sitsongpeenong stable. Thongchai’s size and destructive fighting style made him an attractive proposition, though Dharmajiva laments the fact that Thongchai’s most destructive efforts have in recent years been aimed squarely at his own career.
‘Chicken-fighting’ is the literal translation. In English it is known as cock-fighting, the practice of training roosters – male chickens – and pairing them in fights for gambling and entertainment purposes. It is a particularly popular pursuit among the poor of rural northern Thailand, such as the Isaan province that Thongchai is originally from.
“He’s his own worst enemy,” says Dharmajiva. “He’s addicted to gambling and chicken-fighting. He’s got his own little chicken farm. That’s where he goes when he runs away at weekends. I can’t really stop him, he’s a hard guy to control. He’s crazy for gambling. There’s a dice game called High-Low and he gambles on the fights but his main thing is the chicken fights.”
However, Thongchai is fast approaching his 21st birthday. That’s an important milestone in the life of a Thai man. Dharmajiva’s frustration is evident: “I’ve talked to him until I am blue in the face, it goes in one ear and out the other,” he said, of his attempts to steer the fighter from his vices. But, he is hopeful that stronger forces will succeed where he has not. Because at 21, Thai men become eligible for the army’s national service draft.
“You know what’s going to be good for him? If he gets drafted for military service. Every Thai male becomes eligible at age 21. They look for 80 to 100 guys per district and there’s on average 200 guys per district so your chance of being drafted is a little under one in three say, on average. But Thonghai’s dad told me he is going to actually make him apply for it,” he says.
“They do ten weeks of basic training and that will really put some discipline on him. I am really looking forward to that. It’s probably the best thing that will ever happen to him. Problem kids like him, the army specialize in sorting them out. They will really f—k him up in the training. And then once he goes through it, because he is a fighter, all he has to do is fight for two or three times a year, represent them. So he will only have to be involved a few months a year, the rest of the time he will be free to fight elsewhere.
“But I am not going to help him not do it like I did with Sittichai. He only had to do ten days of basic training because he’s already a fighter and he’s so well-behaved. I am going to tell the army people to f—king keep Thongchai in there, don’t let him out until his behavior is good. And if it’s not they will keep him in there as long as they need to, another six months if need be.”
Keeping Thongchai under lock and key has proven difficult in the past though. Won’t he simply run away from the army barracks at the weekends and back to his combative chickens? Dharmajiva laughs heartily. “He can’t run away from there mate, they’ll f—king kill him!”
“Troublemakers get special attention. I am waiting for that to happen, it will be early next year, but it will straighten him out. His motivation right now is that he’s in debt and his wife’s family are pissed off with him doing nothing. He eats, sleeps, borrows money and goes chicken-gambling and they’ve had enough of it. He had a good nine or ten month run of that before they kicked him out. So he’s kind of been forced back into fighting. But I think he’s going to be good, once he is back in the swing of things.”
Thongchai’s venture into kickboxing got off to a wobbly start with a decision loss in China, his first fight under kickboxing rules, but later this month he will make his GLORY debut when he faces America’s Casey Greene (5-6, 2 KO’s) at GLORY 34 DENVER. Dharmajiva is too honest to blithely predict certain victory for his talented but wayward star, at least in this fight. But he sees unlimited potential for Thongchai if he can only be made to apply himself.
“He’s very good but he’s going to need time to adjust to kickboxing rules over Muay Thai rules. He has got more potential than Sittichai, honestly. He fought higher level Muay Thai than Sittichai, won belts at Lumpini against guys who were 25 year old superstars, in their prime,” he says.
“He’s got charisma, people like to watch him. He’s nasty, he’s smiling at people while he’s beating them. He’s not nice like Sittichai, he’s nasty. He likes to hurt people. That’s just his nature, he’s nasty. He is always looking to finish by knockout. He’s not scared of anything or anyone. The problem is himself. If he had even half of Sittichai’s work ethic he would be unstoppable.”
So does Dharmajiva think victory is likely for Thongchai in this fight with Greene? “Honestly, there’s still a lot of work to do in having him adjust to the kickboxing style, he’s still very Muay Thai. But he has worked hard in this camp and he is a very dangerous guy so yeah, for sure he’s going out there to win. And not only win, knock him out, hurt him.”
GLORY 34 DENVER takes place Friday, October 21 at the 1st Bank Center in Broomfield, Denver, Colorado. Thongchai’s fight with Greene takes place on the SUPERFIGHT SERIES section of the card, which airs live and exclusively worldwide on UFC FIGHT PASS. In the SUPERFIGHT SERIES headliner, welterweight champion Nieky ‘The Natural’ Holzken rematches bitter rival Murthel ‘The Predator’ Groenhart in what will be their trilogy match.